Angler Education

Bass Habits: Both Instinct and Learned

The bass brain should not be viewed as a simplistic computer wherein a specific input always yields a certain output. Bass brains are constantly modified through experience. In a very real sense, a bass begins each day as a new creature based on what it learned the day before.

However, it would be just as wrong to imagine the brain as a blank slate ready to store any and all of life's lessons. Though bass have the capacity to learn, they do not learn all things equally well.

A bass may come to associate the sound of a trolling motor with the imminent appearance of mean little critters with sharp points (lures).

They also have biases. Young bass mature rapidly too rapidly, in fact, to learn all life skills needed to survive. Their brains are genetically hardwired to do specific things before the bass ever needs those particular responses. This saves the bass the necessity of having to learn everything as it goes.

Instincts, therefore, serve to define strong sequences of . They also restrict what a bass can learn, especially in feeding.

Perhaps it is more accurate to think of the learning process for bass feeding behavior as a lump of clay that instincts have already molded into a crude figurine. This figure first takes the shape of a small, featureless fish. As a bass goes through life, its feeding experiences gradually fashion the clay figure. Instead of attacking every single minnow it meets, the bass may come to have favorites.

It may learn that during minnow spawning periods, the ripe females with the swollen stomachs make for a more appealing meal. Or the bass may come to watch for easy targets, such as the abnormal swimming behavior of a crippled minnow. Likewise, it may find that another species of prey fish, with a deeper body and longer fins, is more readily captured because the broader profiles offer a more definitive center of mass for striking, while the longer fins make for slower starts. All these learned experiences add important fine points as a bass' mental model becomes defined.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, instincts demand that the clay figurine always bears the image of a small fish. The superficial details can change, but the overall image cannot. While learning can enhance instincts, it never supplants them. Laboratory bass can be taught to eat small round pellets of formulated feed. But no matter how much feed I give them, I can never unteach any bass to go nuts at the first sight of a minnow. That's a behavioral constant.